In May 2020, Amber Koroluk-Stephenson completed an artist residency on the Glover Country estate in northern Tasmania. Staying in the 1830s house originally built and owned by English colonial painter John Glover and surrounded by the cultivated garden and hills of the estate, the experience allowed her to develop her interest in the histories of landscape painting and the influence of the European gaze on representations of colonialism in Australia. For Koroluk-Stephenson, as for many artists, Glover’s works provide a rich foundation for exploring the influence of Anglo-European perceptions of place and belonging in Australia, and how Eurocentric attempts to ‘domesticate’ the landscape have contributed to myths of colonialism, concealing its more destructive effects.
Breaking Horizons represents the development of Koroluk-Stephenson’s work following her Glover residency and a continuation of her ideas about the legacy of European perspectives within contemporary Australian painting. Employing an eclectic cast of objects, native and non-native flora, landscape imagery, domestic props and reproduced artworks, she explores the illusory nature of painting itself as a critique of both coloniality and the European gaze. Through a series of fragmented landscape ‘backdrops’, Breaking Horizons takes aim at the horizon line as a traditionally European measure of perspective, dismantling its assumptions of the centred subject, continuity of place and uninterrupted views of the world. By assembling landscapes with multiple suns, moons, strips of shoreline, fragmented trees, and broken horizon lines, Koroluk-Stephenson presents place as a construction, carefully arranging her objects and viewpoints to create a seductive veneer that is both inviting and strange. Highlighting the horizon as a visual construct, the exhibition seeks out new tension points within conventional systems of perspective, dismantling old structures and breaking through to new ways of seeing.
Throughout the show, the paintings of John Glover and early Modernist Swedish painter Hilma af Klint are important touchstones in Koroluk-Stephenson’s conceptual pallet. The works of these two artists appear in different states of display and positioning, sometimes in the background or on the floor suggesting hidden or discarded histories of art, and sometimes in the fore- or middleground suggesting a more prominent role in the reordering of perspectives. In an unlikely pairing that crosses historical and geographical divides, their combined presence creates a sense of incongruity, creating dialogues with other objects and images to emphasise the shifting influences of European realism and abstraction in Australia and the persistence of dichotomies that continue to inform our understanding of place. In her inclusion of Glover, Koroluk-Stephenson references the lingering presence of the colonial viewpoint and legacies of the picturesque that sought to assuage a sense of difference in the pursuit of belonging. In contrast, af Klint’s works represent an unfamiliar presence in Australia, an intrusion that Koroluk-Stephenson uses to focus our attention on what is missing from the dominant narratives of art history, and how, by revisioning af Klint’s work[i], we might look for new critiques and perspectives.
Koroluk-Stephenson does not deal directly with these contexts, but appropriates af Klint’s works for their abstract power and the contrast they represent to Glover. By juxtaposing Glover and af Klint, place becomes something mediated by the separate concerns of landscape and abstraction, the attempt to construct identity, nation and cultural power through the former, and the visual and formal potential to create new worlds and perspectives of the latter. In selecting af Klint’s ‘Swan’ series as her main focus, Koroluk-Stephenson showcases a creature of duality whose black and white colouring reflects Australian and European species, and whose alchemical meaning represents ‘the union of opposites necessary for the creation of what is known as the philosopher’s stone, a substance believed to be capable of turning base metals into gold… (the black and white colour of the swan) underscores the dualities of light and dark, male and female, life and death.’[ii] Drawing on such symbolic meanings and her own English grandmother’s china swan collection, Koroluk-Stephenson’s Encounter, Gaze and Swan series appropriates af Klint’s abstractions, adding humour through the domestic rubber glove to strike a balance between the constraints of women’s artistic and domestic labour and the desire for transformation.
Always more lyrical than theoretical in her approach, Koroluk-Stephenson lets these images and meanings slip in and out of view where her focus is on the fluidity between boundaries, the ebb and flow of cultural materials between worlds. In her larger works, the Australian shore serves as the main stage for this flux, a space where black and white swans become European bentwood chairs, colonial sandstone blocks wash up in the twilight of colonialism, and introduced plants compete for attention with the broken, static gums of the background. Through the fluid nature of her interior and exterior spaces, Koroluk-Stephenson ensures these meanings are uncontained, subject to the shifting light of night and day, the process of exchange across thresholds. As she tantalises her viewer with idyllic backdrops promising fantasies of the familiar, her empty plinths, isolated fences and floating walls suggest a sense of displacement or disconnection, shifting boundaries between what once was, what is still here, and what might be yet to come. In these ways, the ‘breaking horizon’ of the show’s title alludes to a space of transition, a place beyond the confines of Australian or European time and geography, where the sun and moon rise and set simultaneously in both hemispheres.
Koroluk-Stephenson knows well that incongruity and ambiguity are the enemies of duality, and she uses these qualities to upset the order of things, assembling new relationships between familiar forms to create new lines of sight. In breaking the horizon, Koroluk-Stephenson constructs a view of the Australian landscape that is unsettled in its resolve of European influences but optimistic in the possibility of reconstructing it in a new light. In this way, there is an abiding sense of speculation in Koroluk-Stephenson’s work, a sense that we might have caught her testing out each arrangement, her rubber gloves, a trace of the artist at work. As we glimpse this process in-situ, Koroluk-Stephenson reminds us that we are all implicated in these acts of viewing, that we seek out what is familiar and what fits within our perspectives, and that we all still look to the horizon to tell us where and who we are.
Dr Eliza Burke